I have made it a practice to pray a rosary every day. For those non-Catholics out there, the rosary is a series of prayers, for which we use a string of beads to keep our place in the process. While praying these prayers, we meditate upon a string of events in the life of Mary and Jesus. As we meditate, we come to more full spiritual life. Lately as I have been praying the rosary, especially the sorrowful mysteries, a series of images has been intruding during my prayers. As the words I write to illustrate these images and thoughts are not found anywhere in the Bible, this is totally a work of fiction. It is my verbal illustration of what might have happened…
I am not sure what happened today. It started like most days here in Jerusalem. We slaves of Pilate’s house were up before the sun rose, of course, and began our usual chores. I, as one of those dedicated to Pilate’s personal service, took great pride in my work. If I did not, I might not only lose my coveted position, but could suffer much worse. Therefore, I was the first of Pilate’s personal staff to arise. My morning ablutions were made quickly, and my morning prayers to the appropriate gods as well. I went silently into the kitchen. As early as I had to rise, the poor kitchen staff was up earlier, as they had to make breakfast for the slaves, who had to eat before our masters were up. I was there to personally oversee the preparation of Pilate’s food. There had been some unrest lately, and I was particularly concerned about the safety of the man who took care of me.
“Erasmus,” the cook cried out, “you’re here early!”
“Just doing my job, Xanthe,” I replied. “What are you fixing this morning?”
“For you, some leftovers from last night. He requested a light breakfast, so I’m giving him a little bread, cheese, and yogurt, with some grapes on the side. I hope it’s to his liking. He’s been a little nervous lately, and hasn’t been eating his usual meals.”
“I’ll take it to him when it’s ready,” I said as Xanthe placed my plate of cold leftovers on the table in front of me. I wrapped some leftover lamb in a pita bread and ate quickly. Xanthe was right about Pilate. The warnings from Rome to keep the Jews in line had made him nervous lately, and there had been some warnings coming in from his lieutenants in the city. There was always some kind of holy man or insurrectionist causing trouble, and lately the head priest of the Jews had been cackling about some new problems. My master had a hard time, keeping everyone satisfied. I had to do my best to keep him happy and not allow little things to add to his stress. The sun god was about to rise over the horizon. I stopped for only a moment to admire the painted sky of Aurora, the dawn goddess. I hurried to Pilate’s apartment with the tray in hand. I paused outside of the door until the guard opened the door. I stepped inside and coughed lightly, looking down at the floor until I heard my name.
“Erasmus, you may bring my tray,” Pilate said. I was very surprised to see him already dressed and standing at his window. I placed the tray quietly on the table and pulled his chair out for him. He did not sit down, but continued to stare out of the window at the town center. I coughed lightly again, and Pilate startled slightly. He gave me a quick glance, smiled ever so briefly, and then sat down. He took a piece of cheese and stared into space, chewing slowly. I poured him his drink, and then took my station by the door again, waiting to be dismissed. He continued to chew thoughtfully, pausing every now and then. Finally, the chewing stopped, but he did not reach for the food again, lost in his thoughts. Finally, he noticed where he was and reached for a grape. “Erasmus,” he said, “stay close today.” “Yes, my lord,” I replied. He waved his hand in dismissal and I backed through the door. The guard closed the door quietly, and my last image was of Pilate, staring off into the distance, the grape held an inch from his mouth.
“What is happening? Why is he so distracted?” I asked the guard.
“Rome is not happy with the reports from this region. This newcomer, this Jesus, is causing quite a disturbance with the Jewish high priest. Pilate is afraid of an uprising, but does not know from which side it will come.”
“Thank you, this information will help me take care of him,” I assured the guard. He was not supposed to supply me with this type of information, but I had taken the time to cultivate him as a friend. Tiberius looked very intimidating, but had a weakness for Xanthe’s sweet rolls. I took care to slip him a few when I could, and he learned he could trust me with certain secrets. The information he gave me wasn’t exactly a secret, anyway, but it did help to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I had heard from the kitchen staff, which went to the public market for goods, about this Jesus and his effect on certain members of society. Certainly the Pharisees were upset with him, and the High Priest was angered that his power of the Jews might be siphoned off by this man who refused to acknowledge the priest’s seat of power in their community. I had not paid much attention to this development, but knowing that Rome was concerned certainly explained Pilate’s behavior this morning. How to keep Rome happy while placating the Jews? And which Jews should he placate? Was this Jesus a real political threat, or was he just a passing event, like a dust storm which made things uncomfortable but whose mess could be cleaned up so that life could continue in its usual way?
I informed the other members of the house staff to be alert to the needs of our masters. They should also be aware of the upcoming Jewish holiday, which might mean that certain items would be more difficult to obtain in the market. After discussing the schedule and other items, they returned to their chores and I returned to my post outside of Pilate’s apartment. Once there, Tiberius and I stared at each other until the door opened and Pilate waved me inside. The tray was barely touched. I gave the tray to another slave to return to the kitchen, and I followed Pilate to the large meeting room, where he met with his officers for an hour or so. It seems that the Jews had captured this Jesus last night. Jesus had been subjected to some questionable questioning and physical abuse. The physical beating did not bother Pilate as much as the trumped up charges. He did not want the accusation of unethical behavior to fall on him. There was some discussion of how to handle the situation, but there was not a clear answer. Pilate left the meeting in a foul mood, and I followed him as silently as I could, trying not to draw his ire. I kept wondering what kind of Jew would go out of his way to upset the temple priests. The Jews were supposed to follow their priests, weren’t they? Didn’t their own god specify this law? Did this mean that Jesus was a lunatic, or was he just a troublemaker? Either one could be dangerous, if allowed to continue his behavior. Pilate certainly didn’t need this headache. My mind was racing, trying to think of things he might want, so that I could have them at hand.
Pilate entered the praetorium, where he had his official seat. He took his place, and almost immediately had to get up to meet with the Jewish temple priests. Their archaic rules denied them entry. Pilate met them just outside the praetorium and tried to get them to handle the problem of Jesus themselves. That was clever, I thought, but it did not work. The Jews insisted that only Pilate had the authority to deal with the situation, which he could not deny. The charges were too serious to leave to the locals. Pilate had Jesus taken into the praetorium. I followed closely, just beyond the ring of guards. I caught glimpses of the man, his face bruised but somehow managing to retain a remarkably calm countenance. This Jesus was not an ordinary criminal, I surmised. Once inside the praetorium, Pilate tried to get Jesus to admit to his guilt, or at least to confess to his transgressions against the temple. All he got was nonsense about being king. Unable to get a straight answer out of him, Pilate took him to the gates and tried once more to escape his dilemma.
“I find no guilt in this man,” he announced. There were boos and rumblings from the crowd. Pilate raised his hand and waiting until the crowd silenced. When the guards came to attack positions the crowd finally calmed down. Pilate lowered his hand and asked the crowd, “Each year I release one prisoner in honor of your Passover. Should I release this man to you?” Immediately there was an uproar, as different voices could be heard shouting both “Barabbas!” and “Jesus!” I could see men quickly working the crowd, and recognized certain ones as strong supporters of the Jewish high priest. I was surprised by the sudden call for Barabbas, and this surprise was reflected as Pilate whirled around and looked at his advisors, standing some distance away. He hurried over to them, the crowd still crying out, and had a quick discussion. Waving to the captain of the guards, he gave him quick orders, and Jesus was removed very quickly. Jesus disappeared in a flurry of swords and spears and breastplates, and Pilate returned to the praetorium. I did not know where Jesus had been taken, but the crowd remained where they were. I called a house slave over and made ordered some water, fruit, cheese, bread, and some of Xanthe’s sweet rolls. It seemed that this could take a while, and I wanted to be ready should food be requested. Pilate’s wife entered the room and had a discussion with her husband, then left. Advisors and soldiers came and went. Then all went quiet, relatively speaking. I could still hear the crowd outside the gates. I poured Pilate a drink and tended to his few needs.
It was some time later that I heard a noise. Suddenly Jesus reappeared with his escort of guards. I had seen the result of floggings before, but the condition of this man shocked me. Blood covered every inch of his body. His garment was rent and hung loosely from what was left of his shoulders. A crown of thorns had been pushed into his head, and the blood from those wounds left small rivers of red over his eyes, cheeks, and neck. His hair was matted by drying blood. Yet, he still stood, fixing his eyes on the procurator. I was trying to figure out what he was trying to communicate to my master when Pilate waved for him to follow, and then walked to waiting Jews.
“See, here he is! I find no guilt in this man!” Jesus was brought forward. I watched the crowd and saw the faces reflecting shame, guilt, fear, and satisfaction. “Behold the man!” Pilate shouted over the crowd.
“Crucify him!” the cry came back. Pilate was not happy with this response. “Take him yourself!” he shouted, “I find no guilt in him!” The loudest voices shouted back “He broke the law by making himself the Son of God!” Pilate brought Jesus back into the praetorium. Whirling about, he faced Jesus. “Where are you from?” he demanded. Jesus remained mute, standing at the end of his trail of blood on the floor. I remember thinking about how much work the others would have to clean up the hall when all of this was done. My thoughts were brought back to the scene in front of me by Pilate’s question, “Why don’t you answer? Why don’t you speak? Do you not know that I have the power to release you and I have power to crucify you?”
Jesus’ eyes met Pilate’s. Jesus answered him “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above. For this reason the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.” Pilate stood there, staring eye to eye with Jesus. I was curious to see who would win this contest of wills. Again, Pilate, Jesus, the guards, and I went to meet with the Jews. Behind us, the slaves were busy scrubbing the floor of the praetorium. Guards watched the proceedings with small smiles. They found the whole thing amusing. I was not sure what I felt about the whole proceeding. There was something to this Jesus that went beyond mere morning reports.
Again, at the gate, he tried to pass the Jesus problem off to the Jews. When the crowd kept shouting for his crucifixion, Pilate motioned for me to bring water and a basin. I arrived quickly with these things, as the shouting grew louder. The head priest merely stood to the side, smiling. Jesus tried to remain erect. I was amazed at the constitution of the man – most men who had gone through this level of punishment usually were either passed out or crying for mercy like babies. As I returned with the requested items, I thought about how I would feel if my own people had been screaming for me to be tortured and killed so ignominiously. As I stood there, holding the basin with a second slave pouring the water, Pilate washed his hands, both figuratively and physically, and handed Jesus over to the guards to be crucified. The whole time, I watched Jesus. His eyes met mine, and he smiled a little smile through the crusty skin and hair. And I had an epiphany. This was no ordinary man. In one glance, he let me know that I was more than a slave, and he was more than mere mortal flesh. I can’t explain it. It just happened.
Jesus was taken away by the guards, followed by a crowd of wailing and crying townspeople. The high priest returned to his temple. Pilate remained at the praetorium, conducting other business, and then returned to his apartment for an afternoon nap. I stayed close by him until he lay down. During his nap, the sky grew dark and the earth shook, waking him. A guard arrived, letting him know that Jesus was already dead. Pilate seemed both disturbed and relieved at the announcement, and then told me to fetch his supper. I suppose he thought that things would go back to normal.
I don’t know if things will ever go back to normal for me. I shall take my next trip outside the praetorium walls slowly. I shall find one of these followers of Jesus. I want to know what Jesus was trying to tell me, in that one calm, knowing glance. I want to know more. Where it leads me, I do not know. Yet.